John McAfee, he’ll have you know, did not kill a man. And 1983–that’s the last time he touched drugs, though his manic energy seems to belie it.
It didn’t take long after the 68-year-old tech tycoon walked onstage for an hour-long chat Saturday at the C2SV music and technology festival for the conversation to take a turn for the salacious. Audience members and moderator-slash-tech journo Dan Holden, wanted to know more about all this sex, drugs and violence we’ve been hearing about since Belizean authorities in 2012 named McAfee a person of interest in the gunpoint execution of his neighbor.
“I’ve always wandered pretty close to the edge,” said the international fugitive, who showed up wiry and weathered in a black tee, blue cargo shorts, suede sneakers and his hair and goatee an electric mess of bleach-frosted stripes. “And I think I just fell off.”
McAfee invented the first antivirus coding to protect an increasingly tech-dependent public from malware, the first of which popped up in ‘80s in Russia and Pakistan and devastated thousands of computers in the mid ‘80s. Peddling that fear of attack made his eponymous software ubiquitous and profoundly successful. He left McAfee, Inc., in 1994, just four years after founding the company (three years to many, in his mind) and 16 before Intel paid $7.68 billion to acquire it.
Today, he’s on a mission to shield the world from a different threat: the all-seeing eye of government surveillance. Seems a fitting aim for a man on the run.
“We live in a very insecure world with a very insecure communications platform,” he said.
The NSA knows all our encryption codes, all our evasive tricks. That’s why his latest project allows anonymity. The new company, called Future Tense, would create an un-hackable network that allows users to exchange information without being accessed by the NSA.
“I’ve been working on a solution that doesn’t involve replacing the Internet, but it does involve another layer, a lower layer … a localized dynamic network where every local network is in constant flux,” he described.
Using the app, D-Central, you can create a private group for acquaintances or switch to the public profile, where you can remain entirely anonymous if you so choose. Everyone within, say, three blocks can communicate with everyone else in that dimension. If you’re on a college campus looking for a specific song, you may get a response within a fraction of a moment. If you’re in Nowheresville, USA, the response may take hours.
“It doesn’t even ask who you are … there’s no unique identifier that is constant,” he said. “It is impossible to even know where it came from or where it went to.”
Once information is exchanged, it goes into the void. Maybe the plan isn’t to replace the established Internet, but it sounds like the app’s users could effectively create their own dark web, where everything’s encrypted and it’s impossible to know who’s doing what and where.
Could it be used for nefarious purposes?
“Of course it will,” he replied, eliciting laughter from the audience. “Just like the telephone is … everything we create will be used for nefarious purposes.”
The federal government could quite possibly shut him out of a U.S. market, he admits. But the federal government isn’t the end-all, he says. If that happened, he’d shop the idea to the Third World.
Though the Future Tense project garnered plenty of interest, more of the audience seemed interested in McAfee’s history of drug use, which he claims ended decades ago.
“I’ve probably taken more drugs than anyone in this entire room can collectively carry,” he offered.
But he doesn’t advise it. For every Steve Jobs out there who claims to have experienced spiritual enlightenment from psychedelic highs, there are 10 dudes who think they’re Jesus, said McAfee. And weed? Forget about it.
“Marijuana is the drug of illusion,” he said. “It creates the the illusion that you’re thinking great thoughts and doing great things while you’re sitting on the sofa and growing a beard.”
Give it up for heroin, he suggested. You’ll hit rock bottom faster and pick yourself up sooner. Or mushrooms–McAfee’s favorite.
“I do everything hard and with full heart,” he said. “If you’re going to o something, do it all the way … if you’re going to be an alcoholic, work yourselves up to 12 bottles of scotch a day, you know, if you do drugs, do them all.”
McAfee’s own sobriety came after a breaking point in his late 30s, he says. He went to therapy and attended AA meetings, learning to come to terms with his abusive upbringing (his father beat him and his mom, then offed himself when McAfee was 15). Becoming a 12-stepper taught him to cope with sobriety in the short-term, but it wasn’t sustainable for him.
“That was very helpful … but you can’t go to meeting your entire life,” he said. “So yoga became a foundation of something else for me.”
Yoga took him to the same place that acid elevated Jobs, McAfee said. Despite the candor about his drug consumption, he encouraged everyone else to avoid the habit. Instead, find something you’re passionate about that’s productive and useful. Learn to live without fear.
“The fear of what might happen–get over that,” he said. “Fear of failure, of what people think. These are the fears to get over.”
His own remaining fear: “My wife,” he joked about Janice Dyson, the 30-year-old former escort and dancer who sat in the front row wearing a black studded leather jacket over a tee emblazoned with the words “Team McAfee.”
The aging cybersecurity bad boy seems inclined to settle down a bit–just a bit, though, since it’s imperative to keep his manic mind occupied–after a lifetime of chaos-seeking. Once he escaped across the southern border of Belize with a retinue of employees and barely-legal girlfriends, he trekked up to Portland where he lives with Dyson and shops his life story to whoever wants to buy the rights to it. Cartoonist-technologist Chad Essley’s working on a book about the guy. Some movie scripts are in the works. And it’s safe to bet we’ll see more sarcastic, scandalous YouTube hits like those he released this summer.
Though far less exotic and way less hectic than the last chapter in life, his new home, he says, is a good fit for now.
“The city motto is, ‘Keep Portland Weird,’” he noted. “And I’m doing my part.”
Watch the interview for yourself right here: